'Avatar: The Way of Water'-ing the Sci-Fi Odyssey Drought
For the majority of James Cameron’s career, his passion for mammoth bodies of water and deep-sea exploration has exerted an increasingly absurd influence on his filmography, from the grand, sweeping sensitivity found in Titanic (1997), the men-on-a-mission, deep-sea paranoia of The Abyss (1989) or even the midnight, trash-epic found within Piranha II: The Spawning (1982).
Even beyond the silver screen, Cameron is an avid explorer of the ocean (claiming in 2012 a record-breaking solo dive of almost 11,000 meters), making clear that the man behind some of the biggest blockbusters of the last 30 years has an avid passion for oceanic landscapes, if not a crippling and costly obsession. So when it became apparent that the sequel to one of (if not the biggest) films of all time was transforming its vast, lush landscapes into a maritime extravaganza, it was obvious from the get-go that this thing was going to be overflowing with all of Cameron’s bizarro passions and idiosyncrasies.
Set more than ten years from Avatar (2009), The Way of Water continues the mythology of Pandora and the Na’vi through previous protagonists Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña), who are now settled and have started a family. This isn’t as peaceful and idyllic as it may sound, as Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), once human, is now resurrected Na’vi style to exact revenge on Sully and his family.
Let’s get this out of the way: whether you love or hate it (personally I believe it’s Cameron’s most important film), Avatar almost single-handedly created the modern blockbuster. Widely popular yet critically divisive, it’s a grandiose hypno-drone of sweeping emotions, a fully fleshed and tangible engineering of spiritual connectivity, giant bowie-knife-wielding mech suits and a corporation vs. nature narrative that also serves as a love story. It’s also one of the dorkiest things I have ever seen and adore it.
So, for those who hate all the above-listed aspects of the 2009 mega-scale, sci-fi epic, you’ll probably find nothing of interest in this new Pandora riff, The Way of Water. It doubles down on all of that and further maxes out on all of the maestro’s other cinematic neuroses, possibly making for the most Cameron movie yet.
It’s as clear as Pandora’s oceans that a ridiculous amount of time and endless effort was spent refining and reshuffling a stew of motion capture and computer-generated elements to birth arresting image after arresting image, a veritable carousel of stunning vistas, creatures, and characters that it’s easy to forget are fake. An endless Cameron odyssey of dreamlike imagery, The Way of Water feels tangible and borderline expressionistic, whether it be the lush flora and fauna or the harsh, stark technological fetishization found in the military bases, giant mech-crabs or the floating boat hovercraft lair! It’s a Cameron fan’s wet dream.
Plot-wise, I can see the film bothering some, borrowing extensively from its predecessor, but tweaking them to rework as an operatic family drama piece rather than the military vs. nature epic/identity crisis drama of the first. The sometimes simplistic plotting occasionally takes a back seat to the real star of the show, as Cameron's aesthetics take the wheel and flex some of the most awe-inspiring technical feats in the history of cinema. Whether it be swimming with an outcast whale or sharing the experience of discovering a whole new world beneath the surface, the visuals alone are worth the price of admission. That being said, Cameron’s characteristic romanticism is still prominent here, just morphed into a familial crisis rather than the spiritual, life-partner approach of the first.
A parade of faces, both new and familiar, appear in The Way of Water; Jake Sully, once a trigger-happy jarhead, is now a Na'vi family man/leader. He is our primary protagonist and guide throughout, serving as narrator (like the first), a now rather niche touch in the modern blockbuster. Jake receives most of the heavyweight sequences in terms of tear-jerking (and dorkiness), with an amusing arc transformation from hero dude to concerned suburban dad. Although Neytiri doesn’t get a whole lot to do in the second act, she gets plenty of franchise highlights by the finale.
The return of Colonel Quaritch was undoubtedly a scene-stealer; now vengeful and inside the enemy's body, propounding a playful, ingenious in-world theoretical. Lang operates this larger, blue body – the thing he hates most – decidedly manipulating it to his bloodthirsty advantage, confirming himself as one of cinema’s most iconic haters. Undoubtedly giving the film’s pulpiest performance, Quaritch is backed up by his militarized gang (also now Na’vi body-equipped) sporting Grunt-esque bulletproof vests, sleeve tattoos, and Oakley sunglasses. It’s a powerful, almost religious image that has not left my brain since my viewing. Although Quaritch isn’t built to be the most complex character within the Pandora universe, he certainly manages to be the most fun, now with a more streamlined evil agenda, scaling up to a by-any-means-necessary villain approach.
Cameron, once again, has effortfully worked with his mad scientist, visionary expressionism and fired it, full force, at the general public for the first time since 2009. A king move. It’s rather easy to get giddy for what’s to come next in the franchise, not only speaking from someone who is completely Pandora-pilled but by a general dude who loves weirdo passion project movies, which is basically Cameron’s whole MO these days. So yeah, wettest movie of the year, and – it goes without saying – bring on part three immediately.